Greg Abbott’s handwritten notes raise fresh questions over who 'misled' him about Uvalde shooting response

Handwritten notes Gov. Greg Abbott made following the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde raise new questions about who allegedly “misled” the governor about the widely criticized police response to the shooting, causing him to initially relay inaccurate information to the public that he would later retract.

The nine pages of blue ink on white lined paper, first published by the Houston television station KTRK, show how Abbott prepared his remarks for a news conference May 25, the day after the shooting — presumably based on information being given to him. Abbott said Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police officers had “engaged with the gunman” outside the school before the gunman was able to enter through a back door.

But that turned out to be false.

The next day, a Department of Public Safety commander said the gunman went into the school unobstructed by any police. Abbott, in turn, said he had taken handwritten notes based on the details law enforcement and other officials had told him, which are what he used to prepare his public statements about the incident. He added that he was “livid” about being “misled.”

Reference

Handwritten notes by Gov. Greg Abbott on the Uvalde school shooting

(11.4 MB)

Who exactly gave Abbott false information, however, remains a mystery. Abbott last week declined to identify the culprits, saying only they were “public officials.”

Uvalde CISD police Chief Pete Arredondo told The Texas Tribune this week that he was not the source. Arredondo said after he heard Abbott make the false statement that the shooter had been confronted outside the school, he asked DPS officials, whom he declined to identify, why state leaders had been given inaccurate information.

[Waiting for keys, unable to break down doors: Uvalde schools police chief defends delay in confronting gunman]

Abbott’s notes do not indicate who told him police confronted the gunman outside. Abbott wrote the word “mayor” at the top of the document. Uvalde Mayor Steve McLaughlin declined to answer questions about what he discussed with the governor before the May 25 news conference. DPS also declined to comment.

Since Abbott on May 25 praised the “amazing courage” of police and said the death toll of 21 students and teachers “could have been worse,” a more complicated picture of the law enforcement response to the shooting has emerged.

[“The wrong decision”: Texas DPS says local police made crucial error as school shooting continued]

State police said Arredondo, as incident commander, made the “wrong decision” by ordering officers not to immediately confront the shooter. Arredondo pushed back against that assertion last week, saying he was not in charge of the scene, did not issue any orders and immediately ran into the school upon his arrival, hoping to confront the shooter.

Despite being the school district police, Arredondo said he and his officers did not have keys to open the doors to the adjoining classrooms where the shooter carried out the massacre. More than 40 minutes passed before police were able to find a key that worked, enter the rooms and kill the gunman.

Arredondo is the only police officer who responded to the shooting to offer a public first-person account of his actions. Other agencies who responded — including the U.S. Border Patrol, Uvalde Police Department and Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office — declined to answer questions about their officers’ conduct.


Join us Sept. 22-24 in person in downtown Austin for The Texas Tribune Festival and experience 100+ conversation events featuring big names you know and others you should from the worlds of politics, public policy, the media and tech — all curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Buy tickets.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/14/greg-abbott-uvalde-shooting-notes/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Uvalde police chief says he ditched his radio during school shooting response – experts are stunned

Only a locked classroom door stood between Pete Arredondo and a chance to bring down the gunman. It was sturdily built with a steel jamb, impossible to kick in.

He wanted a key. One goddamn key and he could get through that door to the kids and the teachers. The killer was armed with an AR-15. Arredondo thought he could shoot the gunman himself or at least draw fire while another officer shot back. Without body armor, he assumed he might die.

“The only thing that was important to me at this time was to save as many teachers and children as possible,” Arredondo said.

The chief of police for the Uvalde school district spent more than an hour in the hallway of Robb Elementary School. He called for tactical gear, a sniper and keys to get inside, holding back from the doors for 40 minutes to avoid provoking sprays of gunfire. When keys arrived, he tried dozens of them, but one by one they failed to work.

“Each time I tried a key I was just praying,” Arredondo said. Finally, 77 minutes after the massacre began, officers were able to unlock the door and fatally shoot the gunman.

In his first extended comments since the May 24 massacre, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, Arredondo gave The Texas Tribune an account of what he did inside the school during the attack. He answered questions via a phone interview and in statements provided through his lawyer, George E. Hyde.

Aside from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to requests for comment for this article, Arredondo is the only other law enforcement official to publicly tell his account of the police response to the shooting.

Arredondo, 50, insists he took the steps he thought would best protect lives at his hometown school, one he had attended himself as a boy.

“My mind was to get there as fast as possible, eliminate any threats, and protect the students and staff,” Arredondo said. He noted that some 500 students from the school were safely evacuated during the crisis.

Arredondo’s decisions — like those of other law enforcement agencies that responded to the massacre that left 21 dead — are under intense scrutiny as federal and state officials try to decide what went wrong and what might be learned.

Whether the inability of police to quickly enter the classroom prevented the 21 victims — 19 students and two educators — from getting life-saving care is not known, and may never be. There’s evidence, including the fact that a teacher died while being transported to the hospital, that suggests taking down the shooter faster might have made a difference. On the other hand, many of the victims likely died instantly. A pediatrician who attended to the victims described small bodies “pulverized” and “decapitated.” Some children were identifiable only by their clothes and shoes.

In the maelstrom of anguish, outrage and second-guessing that immediately followed the second deadliest school shooting in American history, the time Arredondo and other officers spent outside that door — more than an hour — have become emblems of failure.

As head of the six-member police force responsible for keeping Uvalde schools safe, Arredondo has been singled out for much of the blame, particularly by state officials. They criticized him for failing to take control of the police response and said he made the “wrong decision” that delayed officers from entering the classroom.

Arredondo has faced death threats. News crews have camped outside his home, forcing him to go into hiding. He’s been called cowardly and incompetent.

Neither accusation is true or fair, he says.

“Not a single responding officer ever hesitated, even for a moment, to put themselves at risk to save the children,” Arredondo said. “We responded to the information that we had and had to adjust to whatever we faced. Our objective was to save as many lives as we could, and the extraction of the students from the classrooms by all that were involved saved over 500 of our Uvalde students and teachers before we gained access to the shooter and eliminated the threat.”

Arredondo’s explanations don’t fully address all the questions that have been raised. The Tribune spoke to seven law enforcement experts about Arredondo’s description of the police response. All but one said that serious lapses in judgment occurred.

Most strikingly, they said, by running into the school with no key and no radios and failing to take charge of the situation, the chief appears to have contributed to a chaotic approach in which officers deployed inappropriate tactics, adopted a defensive posture, failed to coordinate their actions, and wasted precious time as students and teachers remained trapped in two classrooms with a gunman who continued to fire his rifle.

Hyde, Arredondo’s lawyer, said those criticisms don’t reflect the realities police face when they’re under fire and trying to save lives. Uvalde is a small working-class city of about 15,000 west of San Antonio. Its small band of school police officers doesn’t have the staffing, equipment, training, or experience with mass violence that larger cities might.

His client ran straight toward danger armed with 29 years of law enforcement experience and a Glock 22 handgun. With no body armor and no second thoughts, the chief committed to stop the shooter or die trying.

77 minutes

One of Arredondo’s most consequential decisions was immediate. Within seconds of arriving at the northeast entrance of Robb Elementary around 11:35 a.m., he left his police and campus radios outside the school.

To Arredondo, the choice was logical. An armed killer was loose on the campus of the elementary school. Every second mattered. He wanted both hands free to hold his gun, ready to aim and fire quickly and accurately if he encountered the gunman.

Arredondo provided the following account of how the incident unfolded in a phone interview, in written answers, and in explanations passed through his lawyer.

He said he didn’t speak out sooner because he didn’t want to compound the community’s grief or cast blame at others.

Thinking he was the first officer to arrive and wanting to waste no time, Arredondo believed that carrying the radios would slow him down. One had a whiplike antenna that would hit him as he ran. The other had a clip that Arredondo knew would cause it to fall off his tactical belt during a long run.

Arredondo said he knew from experience that the radios did not work in some school buildings.

But that decision also meant that for the rest of the ordeal, he was not in radio contact with the scores of other officers from at least five agencies that swarmed the scene.

Almost immediately, Arredondo teamed up with a Uvalde police officer and began checking classrooms, looking for the gunman.

As they moved to the west side of the campus, a teacher pointed them to the wing the gunman had entered. As Arredondo and the Uvalde police officer ran toward it, they heard a “great deal of rounds” fired off inside. Arredondo believes that was the moment the gunman first entered adjoining classrooms 111 and 112 and started firing on the children with an AR-15 rifle.

Arredondo and the Uvalde officer entered the building’s south side and saw another group of Uvalde police officers entering from the north.

Arredondo checked to see if the door on the right, room 111, would open. Another officer tried room 112. Both doors were locked.

Arredondo remembers the gunman fired a burst of shots from inside the classroom, grazing the police officers approaching from the north. Some of the bullets pierced the classroom door, and others went through the classroom wall and lodged in the wall adjacent to the hallway, where there were other classrooms. The officers on the north end of the hallway retreated after being shot, but they weren’t seriously injured and returned shortly after to try to contain the gunman.

Because the gunman was already inside the locked classroom, some of the measures meant to protect teachers and students in mass shooting situations worked against police trying to gain entry.

Arredondo described the classroom door as reinforced with a hefty steel jamb, designed to keep an attacker on the outside from forcing their way in. But with the gunman inside the room, that took away officers’ ability to immediately kick in the door and confront the shooter.

Arredondo believed the situation had changed from that of an active shooter, to a gunman who had barricaded himself in a classroom with potential other victims.

Texas Department of Public Safety officials and news outlets have reported that the shooter fired his gun at least two more times as police waited in the hallway outside the classrooms for more than an hour. And DPS officials have said dispatchers were relaying information about 911 calls coming from children and teachers in the classrooms, begging the police for help.

Arredondo said he was not aware of the 911 calls because he did not have his radio and no one in the hallway relayed that information to him. Arredondo and the other officers in the hallway took great pains to remain quiet. Arredondo said they had no radio communications — and even if they’d had radios, his lawyer said, they would have turned them off in the hallway to avoid giving away their location. Instead, they passed information in whispers for fear of drawing another round of gunfire if the shooter heard them.

Finding no way to enter the room, Arredondo called police dispatch from his cellphone and asked for a SWAT team, snipers and extrication tools, like a fire hook, to open the door.

Arredondo remained in the hallway for the rest of the ordeal, waiting for a way to get into the room, and prepared to shoot the gunman if he tried to exit the classroom.

Arredondo assumed that some other officer or official had taken control of the larger response. He took on the role of a front-line responder.

He said he never considered himself the scene’s incident commander and did not give any instruction that police should not attempt to breach the building. DPS officials have described Arredondo as the incident commander and said Arredondo made the call to stand down and treat the incident as a “barricaded suspect,” which halted the attempt to enter the room and take down the shooter. “I didn’t issue any orders,” Arredondo said. “I called for assistance and asked for an extraction tool to open the door.”

Officers in the hallway had few options. At some point, Arredondo tried to talk to the gunman through the walls in an effort to establish a rapport, but the gunman did not respond.

With the gunman still firing sporadically, Arredondo realized that children and teachers in adjacent rooms remained in danger if the gunman started shooting through the walls.

“The ammunition was penetrating the walls at that point,” Arredondo said. “We’ve got him cornered, we’re unable to get to him. You realize you need to evacuate those classrooms while we figured out a way to get in.”

Lights in the classrooms had also been turned off, another routine lockdown measure that worked against the police. With little visibility into the classroom, they were unable to pinpoint the gunman’s location or to determine whether the children and teachers were alive.

Arredondo told officers to start breaking windows from outside other classrooms and evacuating those children and teachers. He wanted to avoid having students coming into the hallway, where he feared too much noise would attract the gunman’s attention.

While other officers outside the school evacuated children, Arredondo and the officers in the hallway held their position and waited for the tools to open the classroom and confront the gunman.

At one point, a Uvalde police officer noticed Arredondo was not wearing body armor. Worried for the chief’s safety, the Uvalde officer offered to cover for Arredondo while he ran out of the building to get it.

“I’ll be very frank. He said, ‘Fuck you. I’m not leaving this hallway,’” Hyde recounted. “He wasn’t going to leave without those kids.”

Without any way to get into the classroom, officers in the hallway waited desperately for a way to secure entry and did the best they could to otherwise advance their goal of saving lives.

“It’s not that someone said stand down,” Hyde said. “It was ‘Right now, we can’t get in until we get the tools. So we’re going to do what we can do to save lives.’ And what was that? It was to evacuate the students and the parents and the teachers out of the rooms.”

Tools that might have been useful in breaking through the door never materialized, but Arredondo had also asked for keys that could open the door. Unlike some other school district police departments, Uvalde CISD officers don’t carry master keys to the schools they visit. Instead, they request them from an available staff member when they’re needed.

Robb Elementary did not have a modern system of locks and access control. “You’re talking about a key ring that’s got to weigh 10 pounds,” Hyde said.

Eventually, a janitor provided six keys. Arredondo tried each on a door adjacent to the room where the gunman was, but it didn’t open.

Later, another key ring with between 20 and 30 keys was brought to Arredondo.

“I was praying one of them was going to open up the door each time I tried a key,” Arredondo said in an interview.

None did.

Eventually, the officers on the north side of the hallway called Arredondo’s cellphone and told him they had gotten a key that could open the door.

The officers on the north side of the hallway formed a group of mixed law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Border Patrol, to enter the classroom and take down the shooter, Arredondo said.

Ten days after the shooting, The New York Times reported that a group of U.S. Border Patrol agents ignored a directive spoken into their earpieces not to enter the room. The Times has since reported that Arredondo did not object when the team entered the room.

Hyde said if a directive delaying entry was issued, it did not come from Arredondo, but the Times reported that someone was issuing orders at the scene. Hyde said he did not know who that person was. The Border Patrol declined to comment.

At 12:50 p.m., as the officers entered the classroom, Arredondo held his position near the south classroom door in the hallway, in case the gunman tried to run out that door.

At last, the shooter, Salvador Ramos, 18, was brought down. A harrowing standoff rapidly became an effort to find the wounded and count the dead.

Once the officers cleared the room, Border Patrol agents trained to render emergency medical service assessed the wounded. Arredondo and other officers formed a line to help pass the injured children out of the hallway and to emergency medical care.

Expert analysis

A police officer intentionally ditching his radio while answering a call? “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” said Steve Ijames, a police tactics expert and former assistant police chief of Springfield, Missouri.

The discarded radio, the missing key and the apparent lack of an incident commander are some of questions raised by experts about the response of Arredondo and the various agencies involved.

Officers are trained never to abandon their radios, their primary communication tool during an emergency, said Ijames. That Arredondo did so the moment he arrived on scene is inexplicable, he said.

Ijames added that it is “inconceivable” that Arredondo’s officers did not have a plan to access any room or building on campus at any moment, given that the school district makes up the entirety of the tiny force’s jurisdiction.

The experts, which included active-shooting researchers and retired law enforcement personnel, homed in on the moment officers entered the school and found the doors to rooms 111 and 112 locked. Three said this moment afforded Arredondo a chance to step back, regroup and work with other officers to devise a new strategy.

“It takes having someone who has the wherewithal to come up with a quick, tactical plan and executing it,” said former Seguin police Chief Terry Nichols. “It may not be the best plan, but a plan executed vigorously is better than the best unexecuted plan in the world.”

Nichols, who teaches classes on active-shooter responses, said he understands the instinct for command staff to want to confront a gunman themselves. But he said commanders must not lose focus of their role in an emergency.

“We have to — as leaders, especially as a chief of police — step back and allow our men and women to go do what they do, and use our training and experience where they’re needed, to command and control a chaotic situation,” Nichols said.

Active-shooter protocols developed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where a slow police response delayed medical care that could have saved several victims, train police to confront shooters immediately, without waiting for backup and without regard for their personal safety. An active-shooting training that Uvalde school district police attended in March stressed these tactics, warning that responders likely would be required to place themselves in harm’s way.

“The training that police officers have received for more than a decade mandates that when shots are fired in an active-shooter situation, officers or an officer needs to continue through whatever obstacles they face to get to the shooter, period,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who co-wrote the bureau’s foundational research on mass shootings. “If that means they go through walls, or go around the back through windows, or through an adjoining classroom, they do that.”

Bruce Ure, a former Victoria police chief, said drawing conclusions about police conduct during the shooting is premature since the authorities have not completed their investigations. He said he believes Arredondo acted reasonably given the circumstances he faced.

Ure disagreed that Arredondo should have retreated into a command role once other officers arrived, since most active-shooter events last mere minutes. He argued that no amount of ad-hoc planning outside would have changed the outcome of the massacre once the shooter got inside the classrooms.

He said attempting to breach windows or open classroom doors by force were unrealistic options that would have exposed police and children to potentially fatal gunfire with little chance of success. Officers’ only choice, he said, was to wait to find a key, which he agreed should not have taken so long.

Hyde said attempting to enter through windows would have “guaranteed all the children in the rooms would be killed” along with several officers. He said this “reckless and ineffective” action, when police could not see where the shooter was, would have made officers easy targets to be picked off at will.

Ure, who as an attendee was wounded in the hand during the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 60 people, acknowledged the post-Columbine wisdom that immediately confronting shooters is paramount. But he said the scene inside Robb Elementary presented a “perfect storm” of an active shooter barricaded with hostages.

“There’s no manual for this type of scenario,” Ure said. “If people need to be held appropriately accountable, then so be it. But I think the lynch-mob mentality right now isn’t serving any purpose, and it’s borderline reckless.”

Questions over command

The day after the shooting, Arredondo and other local officials stood behind Gov. Greg Abbott and DPS Director Steve McCraw as they held their first major news conference to address the slaughter.

Abbott lauded law enforcement agencies for their “amazing courage” and said the actions of police officers were the reason the shooting was “not worse.” McCraw said a school resource officer had “engaged” the shooter outside the building but was unable to stop him from entering.

To Arredondo, that information did not ring true. Arredondo turned to a DPS official, whom he declined to identify, and asked why state officials had been given inaccurate information.

In a stunning reversal at a news conference the next day, the DPS regional director for the area, Victor Escalon, retracted McCraw’s initial claim and said the gunman “was not confronted by anybody” before entering the school.

At a third news conference the following afternoon, Abbott said he was “livid” about being “misled” about the police response to the shooting. He said his incorrect remarks were merely a recitation of what officers had told him.

Hyde said the inaccurate information did not come from Arredondo, who had briefed state and law enforcement officials about the shooting before the first press conference. Abbott on Wednesday declined to identify who had misled him, saying only that the bad information had come from “public officials.”

McCraw also told reporters that Arredondo, whom he identified by his position rather than his name, treated the gunman as a “barricaded suspect” rather than an active shooter, which McCraw deemed a mistake. In the news conference, McCraw referred to Arredondo as the shooting’s “incident commander.”

Hyde said Arredondo did not issue any orders to other law enforcement agencies and had no knowledge that they considered him the incident commander.

The National Incident Management System, which guides all levels of government on how to respond to mass emergency events, says that the first person on scene is the incident commander. That incident commander remains in that charge until they relinquish it or are incapacitated.

Hyde acknowledged those guidelines but said Arredondo’s initial response to the shooting was not that of an incident commander, but of a first responder.

“Once he became engaged, intimately involved on the front line of this case, he is one of those that is in the best position to continue to resolve the incident at that time,” Hyde said. “So while it’s easy to identify him as the incident commander because of that NIMS process, in practicality, you see here he was not in the capacity to be able to run this entire organization.”

With no radio and no way to receive up-to-date information about what was happening outside of the hallway, Hyde said, another one of the local, state and federal agencies that arrived at the scene should have taken over command.

Nichols, the former Seguin police chief, dismissed the idea that another officer would seamlessly adopt the incident commander role simply because Arredondo never did. He said decisive commanders are especially important when multiple agencies respond to an incident and are unsure how to work together.

“You know the facility. You’re the most intimately knowledgeable about this,” Nichols said of Arredondo. “Take command and set what your priorities need to be, right now.”

On May 31, officials with DPS, which is investigating the Uvalde shooting, told news outlets that Arredondo was no longer cooperating with the agency. The agency’s investigative unit, the Texas Rangers, wanted to continue talking with the police chief, but he had not responded to the agency’s request for two days, DPS officials said.

Hyde said Arredondo participated in multiple interviews with DPS in the days following the shooting, including a law enforcement debriefing the day of the attack and a videotaped debriefing with DPS analysts and the FBI the day after.

He’d also briefed the governor and other state officials and had multiple follow-up calls with DPS for its investigation.

But after McCraw said at a press conference on May 27 that Arredondo made the “wrong decision,” the police chief “no longer participated in the investigation to avoid media interference,” Hyde said.

The Rangers had asked Arredondo to come in for another interview, but he told investigators he could not do it on the day they asked because he was covering shifts for his officers, Hyde said.

“At no time did he communicate his unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation,” Hyde said. “His phone was flooded with calls and messages from numbers he didn’t recognize, and it’s possible he missed calls from DPS but still maintained daily interaction by phone with DPS assisting with logistics as requested.”

Hyde said Arredondo is open to cooperating with the Rangers investigation but would like to see a transcript of his previous comments.

“That’s a fair thing to ask for before he has to then discuss it again because, as time goes by, all the information that he hears, it’s hard to keep straight,” Hyde said.

“They loved those kids”

When the gunman was dead, police had another grim task: moving the tiny bodies of injured children out of the room and getting them emergency medical care as soon as possible.

A line was formed to gently but quickly move them out. Each child passed through Arredondo’s arms.

Later that night, Arredondo went to the Uvalde civic center, where families waited desperately for news that their loved ones had survived, or had at worst been taken to the hospital for treatment.

For Arredondo, his lawyer said, telling families that “no additional kids were coming out of the school alive was the toughest part of his career.”

The chaotic law enforcement response to the shooting by local, state and federal agencies is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Texas Department of Public Safety. It is the subject of an investigative committee of the Texas Legislature and will be the source of months of scrutiny by public officials, survivors and the families of the deceased. Survivors and the families of victims have started contacting lawyers for potential legal action.

Arredondo’s role will be central to all of those probes.

For now, he is avoiding the public eye, having left his home temporarily because it is under constant watch by news reporters.

But he’s also been unable to mourn with his community.

Arredondo grew up in the community and attended Robb Elementary as a boy. He started his career at the Uvalde Police Department and spent 16 years there before moving to Laredo for work.He returned to his hometown in 2020 to head up the school district’s police department. He and his police officers loved high-fiving the schoolchildren on his visits to the schools, Hyde said.

“It was the highlight of his days,” Hyde said. “They loved those kids.”

Arredondo’s ties to the shooting are also familial. One of the teachers killed by the gunman, Irma Garcia, was married to Arredondo’s second cousin, Joe Garcia. Garcia died suddenly two days after his wife’s death.

Arredondo grew up with Joe Garcia and went to school with him. But when the funeral services started, Arredondo said he opted against attending because he didn’t want his presence to distract from the Garcias’ grieving loved ones.

His small police department is also suffering.

Eva Mireles, another teacher killed by the gunman, was married to Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police officer Ruben Ruiz.

“They lost a person that they consider family,” Hyde said.

To relieve his grieving officers, Arredondo has picked up extra shifts at the police department.

And he’s received death threats and negative messages from people he does not know.

“Those are people who just don’t know the whole story that are making their assumptions on what they’re hearing or reading. That’s been difficult,” he said. “The police in Uvalde, we’re like your family, your brothers and sisters. We help each other out at any cost, and we’re used to helping out the community, period, because that’s what most public servants are about.”

Arredondo said he remains proud of his response and that of his other officers that day. He believes they saved lives. He also believes that fate brought him back home for a reason.

“No one in my profession wants to ever be in anything like this,” Arredondo said. “But being raised here in Uvalde, I was proud to be here when this happened. I feel like I came back home for a reason, and this might possibly be one of the main reasons why I came back home. We’re going to keep on protecting our community at whatever cost.”

Waiting for keys, unable to break down doors: Uvalde schools police chief defends delay in confronting gunman

Only a locked classroom door stood between Pete Arredondo and a chance to bring down the gunman. It was sturdily built with a steel jamb, impossible to kick in.

He wanted a key. One goddamn key and he could get through that door to the kids and the teachers. The killer was armed with an AR-15. Arredondo thought he could shoot the gunman himself or at least draw fire while another officer shot back. Without body armor, he assumed he might die.

“The only thing that was important to me at this time was to save as many teachers and children as possible,” Arredondo said.

The chief of police for the Uvalde school district spent more than an hour in the hallway of Robb Elementary School. He called for tactical gear, a sniper and keys to get inside, holding back from the doors for 40 minutes to avoid provoking sprays of gunfire. When keys arrived, he tried dozens of them, but one by one they failed to work.

“Each time I tried a key I was just praying,” Arredondo said. Finally, 77 minutes after the massacre began, officers were able to unlock the door and fatally shoot the gunman.

In his first extended comments since the May 24 massacre, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, Arredondo gave The Texas Tribune an account of what he did inside the school during the attack. He answered questions via a phone interview and in statements provided through his lawyer, George E. Hyde.

Aside from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to requests for comment for this article, Arredondo is the only other law enforcement official to publicly tell his account of the police response to the shooting.

Arredondo, 50, insists he took the steps he thought would best protect lives at his hometown school, one he had attended himself as a boy.

Students flee and authorities help others evacuate after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022.

Students fled and authorities helped others evacuate after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24. Credit: Courtesy of Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

“My mind was to get there as fast as possible, eliminate any threats, and protect the students and staff,” Arredondo said. He noted that some 500 students from the school were safely evacuated during the crisis.

Arredondo’s decisions — like those of other law enforcement agencies that responded to the massacre that left 21 dead — are under intense scrutiny as federal and state officials try to decide what went wrong and what might be learned.

Whether the inability of police to quickly enter the classroom prevented the 21 victims — 19 students and two educators — from getting life-saving care is not known, and may never be. There’s evidence, including the fact that a teacher died while being transported to the hospital, that suggests taking down the shooter faster might have made a difference. On the other hand, many of the victims likely died instantly. A pediatrician who attended to the victims described small bodies “pulverized” and “decapitated.” Some children were identifiable only by their clothes and shoes.

In the maelstrom of anguish, outrage and second-guessing that immediately followed the second deadliest school shooting in American history, the time Arredondo and other officers spent outside that door — more than an hour — have become emblems of failure.

As head of the six-member police force responsible for keeping Uvalde schools safe, Arredondo has been singled out for much of the blame, particularly by state officials. They criticized him for failing to take control of the police response and said he made the “wrong decision” that delayed officers from entering the classroom.

Arredondo has faced death threats. News crews have camped outside his home, forcing him to go into hiding. He’s been called cowardly and incompetent.

Neither accusation is true or fair, he says.

“Not a single responding officer ever hesitated, even for a moment, to put themselves at risk to save the children,” Arredondo said. “We responded to the information that we had and had to adjust to whatever we faced. Our objective was to save as many lives as we could, and the extraction of the students from the classrooms by all that were involved saved over 500 of our Uvalde students and teachers before we gained access to the shooter and eliminated the threat.”

Arredondo’s explanations don’t fully address all the questions that have been raised. The Tribune spoke to seven law enforcement experts about Arredondo’s description of the police response. All but one said that serious lapses in judgment occurred.

Most strikingly, they said, by running into the school with no key and no radios and failing to take charge of the situation, the chief appears to have contributed to a chaotic approach in which officers deployed inappropriate tactics, adopted a defensive posture, failed to coordinate their actions, and wasted precious time as students and teachers remained trapped in two classrooms with a gunman who continued to fire his rifle.

Hyde, Arredondo’s lawyer, said those criticisms don’t reflect the realities police face when they’re under fire and trying to save lives. Uvalde is a small working-class city of about 15,000 west of San Antonio. Its small band of school police officers doesn’t have the staffing, equipment, training, or experience with mass violence that larger cities might.

His client ran straight toward danger armed with 29 years of law enforcement experience and a Glock 22 handgun. With no body armor and no second thoughts, the chief committed to stop the shooter or die trying.

77 minutes

One of Arredondo’s most consequential decisions was immediate. Within seconds of arriving at the northeast entrance of Robb Elementary around 11:35 a.m., he left his police and campus radios outside the school.

To Arredondo, the choice was logical. An armed killer was loose on the campus of the elementary school. Every second mattered. He wanted both hands free to hold his gun, ready to aim and fire quickly and accurately if he encountered the gunman.

Arredondo provided the following account of how the incident unfolded in a phone interview, in written answers, and in explanations passed through his lawyer.

He said he didn’t speak out sooner because he didn’t want to compound the community’s grief or cast blame at others.

Thinking he was the first officer to arrive and wanting to waste no time, Arredondo believed that carrying the radios would slow him down. One had a whiplike antenna that would hit him as he ran. The other had a clip that Arredondo knew would cause it to fall off his tactical belt during a long run.

Arredondo said he knew from experience that the radios did not work in some school buildings.

But that decision also meant that for the rest of the ordeal, he was not in radio contact with the scores of other officers from at least five agencies that swarmed the scene.

Almost immediately, Arredondo teamed up with a Uvalde police officer and began checking classrooms, looking for the gunman.

As they moved to the west side of the campus, a teacher pointed them to the wing the gunman had entered. As Arredondo and the Uvalde police officer ran toward it, they heard a “great deal of rounds” fired off inside. Arredondo believes that was the moment the gunman first entered adjoining classrooms 111 and 112 and started firing on the children with an AR-15 rifle.

Arredondo and the Uvalde officer entered the building’s south side and saw another group of Uvalde police officers entering from the north.

Arredondo checked to see if the door on the right, room 111, would open. Another officer tried room 112. Both doors were locked.

Arredondo remembers the gunman fired a burst of shots from inside the classroom, grazing the police officers approaching from the north. Some of the bullets pierced the classroom door, and others went through the classroom wall and lodged in the wall adjacent to the hallway, where there were other classrooms. The officers on the north end of the hallway retreated after being shot, but they weren’t seriously injured and returned shortly after to try to contain the gunman.

Because the gunman was already inside the locked classroom, some of the measures meant to protect teachers and students in mass shooting situations worked against police trying to gain entry.

Arredondo described the classroom door as reinforced with a hefty steel jamb, designed to keep an attacker on the outside from forcing their way in. But with the gunman inside the room, that took away officers’ ability to immediately kick in the door and confront the shooter.

Arredondo believed the situation had changed from that of an active shooter, to a gunman who had barricaded himself in a classroom with potential other victims.

A woman holds her head during mass at Primera Iglesia Bautista Church in Uvalde on May 29, 2022.

People worshipped during Mass at Primera Iglesia Bautista church in Uvalde on May 29. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Churchgoers bow their heads in prayer during mass at the Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde on May 29, 2022.

Churchgoers bow their heads in prayer during mass at the Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde on May 29, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Thousands of roses, handwritten notes, hundreds of candles and dozens of stuffed animals surround a fountain in the center of the City of Uvalde Town Square on May 29, 2022.

Thousands of roses, handwritten notes, hundreds of candles and dozens of stuffed animals surround a fountain in the center of the City of Uvalde Town Square on May 29. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

First: Churchgoers bowed their heads in prayer during Mass at the Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde on May 29. Last: Thousands of roses, handwritten notes, hundreds of candles and dozens of stuffed animals surrounded a fountain in the center of the Uvalde town square on May 29. Credit: Evan L'Roy and Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Texas Department of Public Safety officials and news outlets have reported that the shooter fired his gun at least two more times as police waited in the hallway outside the classrooms for more than an hour. And DPS officials have said dispatchers were relaying information about 911 calls coming from children and teachers in the classrooms, begging the police for help.

Arredondo said he was not aware of the 911 calls because he did not have his radio and no one in the hallway relayed that information to him. Arredondo and the other officers in the hallway took great pains to remain quiet. Arredondo said they had no radio communications — and even if they’d had radios, his lawyer said, they would have turned them off in the hallway to avoid giving away their location. Instead, they passed information in whispers for fear of drawing another round of gunfire if the shooter heard them.

Finding no way to enter the room, Arredondo called police dispatch from his cellphone and asked for a SWAT team, snipers and extrication tools, like a fire hook, to open the door.

Arredondo remained in the hallway for the rest of the ordeal, waiting for a way to get into the room, and prepared to shoot the gunman if he tried to exit the classroom.

Arredondo assumed that some other officer or official had taken control of the larger response. He took on the role of a front-line responder.

He said he never considered himself the scene’s incident commander and did not give any instruction that police should not attempt to breach the building. DPS officials have described Arredondo as the incident commander and said Arredondo made the call to stand down and treat the incident as a “barricaded suspect,” which halted the attempt to enter the room and take down the shooter. “I didn’t issue any orders,” Arredondo said. “I called for assistance and asked for an extraction tool to open the door.”

Officers in the hallway had few options. At some point, Arredondo tried to talk to the gunman through the walls in an effort to establish a rapport, but the gunman did not respond.

With the gunman still firing sporadically, Arredondo realized that children and teachers in adjacent rooms remained in danger if the gunman started shooting through the walls.

“The ammunition was penetrating the walls at that point,” Arredondo said. “We’ve got him cornered, we’re unable to get to him. You realize you need to evacuate those classrooms while we figured out a way to get in.”

Lights in the classrooms had also been turned off, another routine lockdown measure that worked against the police. With little visibility into the classroom, they were unable to pinpoint the gunman’s location or to determine whether the children and teachers were alive.

Arredondo told officers to start breaking windows from outside other classrooms and evacuating those children and teachers. He wanted to avoid having students coming into the hallway, where he feared too much noise would attract the gunman’s attention.

While other officers outside the school evacuated children, Arredondo and the officers in the hallway held their position and waited for the tools to open the classroom and confront the gunman.

At one point, a Uvalde police officer noticed Arredondo was not wearing body armor. Worried for the chief’s safety, the Uvalde officer offered to cover for Arredondo while he ran out of the building to get it.

“I’ll be very frank. He said, ‘Fuck you. I’m not leaving this hallway,’” Hyde recounted. “He wasn’t going to leave without those kids.”

Without any way to get into the classroom, officers in the hallway waited desperately for a way to secure entry and did the best they could to otherwise advance their goal of saving lives.

“It’s not that someone said stand down,” Hyde said. “It was ‘Right now, we can’t get in until we get the tools. So we’re going to do what we can do to save lives.’ And what was that? It was to evacuate the students and the parents and the teachers out of the rooms.”

Tools that might have been useful in breaking through the door never materialized, but Arredondo had also asked for keys that could open the door. Unlike some other school district police departments, Uvalde CISD officers don’t carry master keys to the schools they visit. Instead, they request them from an available staff member when they’re needed.

Robb Elementary did not have a modern system of locks and access control. “You’re talking about a key ring that’s got to weigh 10 pounds,” Hyde said.

Eventually, a janitor provided six keys. Arredondo tried each on a door adjacent to the room where the gunman was, but it didn’t open.

Later, another key ring with between 20 and 30 keys was brought to Arredondo.

“I was praying one of them was going to open up the door each time I tried a key,” Arredondo said in an interview.

None did.

Eventually, the officers on the north side of the hallway called Arredondo’s cellphone and told him they had gotten a key that could open the door.

The officers on the north side of the hallway formed a group of mixed law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Border Patrol, to enter the classroom and take down the shooter, Arredondo said.

Ten days after the shooting, The New York Times reported that a group of U.S. Border Patrol agents ignored a directive spoken into their earpieces not to enter the room. The Times has since reported that Arredondo did not object when the team entered the room.

Hyde said if a directive delaying entry was issued, it did not come from Arredondo, but the Times reported that someone was issuing orders at the scene. Hyde said he did not know who that person was. The Border Patrol declined to comment.

At 12:50 p.m., as the officers entered the classroom, Arredondo held his position near the south classroom door in the hallway, in case the gunman tried to run out that door.

At last, the shooter, Salvador Ramos, 18, was brought down. A harrowing standoff rapidly became an effort to find the wounded and count the dead.

Once the officers cleared the room, Border Patrol agents trained to render emergency medical service assessed the wounded. Arredondo and other officers formed a line to help pass the injured children out of the hallway and to emergency medical care.

Police block off the road leading to the scene of a school shooting at Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde.

Police blocked off the road leading to the scene of a school shooting May 24 at Robb Elementary. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Expert analysis

A police officer intentionally ditching his radio while answering a call? “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” said Steve Ijames, a police tactics expert and former assistant police chief of Springfield, Missouri.

The discarded radio, the missing key and the apparent lack of an incident commander are some of questions raised by experts about the response of Arredondo and the various agencies involved.

Officers are trained never to abandon their radios, their primary communication tool during an emergency, said Ijames. That Arredondo did so the moment he arrived on scene is inexplicable, he said.

Ijames added that it is “inconceivable” that Arredondo’s officers did not have a plan to access any room or building on campus at any moment, given that the school district makes up the entirety of the tiny force’s jurisdiction.

The experts, which included active-shooting researchers and retired law enforcement personnel, homed in on the moment officers entered the school and found the doors to rooms 111 and 112 locked. Three said this moment afforded Arredondo a chance to step back, regroup and work with other officers to devise a new strategy.

“It takes having someone who has the wherewithal to come up with a quick, tactical plan and executing it,” said former Seguin police Chief Terry Nichols. “It may not be the best plan, but a plan executed vigorously is better than the best unexecuted plan in the world.”

Nichols, who teaches classes on active-shooter responses, said he understands the instinct for command staff to want to confront a gunman themselves. But he said commanders must not lose focus of their role in an emergency.

“We have to — as leaders, especially as a chief of police — step back and allow our men and women to go do what they do, and use our training and experience where they’re needed, to command and control a chaotic situation,” Nichols said.

Active-shooter protocols developed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where a slow police response delayed medical care that could have saved several victims, train police to confront shooters immediately, without waiting for backup and without regard for their personal safety. An active-shooting training that Uvalde school district police attended in March stressed these tactics, warning that responders likely would be required to place themselves in harm’s way.

“The training that police officers have received for more than a decade mandates that when shots are fired in an active-shooter situation, officers or an officer needs to continue through whatever obstacles they face to get to the shooter, period,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who co-wrote the bureau’s foundational research on mass shootings. “If that means they go through walls, or go around the back through windows, or through an adjoining classroom, they do that.”

Bruce Ure, a former Victoria police chief, said drawing conclusions about police conduct during the shooting is premature since the authorities have not completed their investigations. He said he believes Arredondo acted reasonably given the circumstances he faced.

Ure disagreed that Arredondo should have retreated into a command role once other officers arrived, since most active-shooter events last mere minutes. He argued that no amount of ad-hoc planning outside would have changed the outcome of the massacre once the shooter got inside the classrooms.

He said attempting to breach windows or open classroom doors by force were unrealistic options that would have exposed police and children to potentially fatal gunfire with little chance of success. Officers’ only choice, he said, was to wait to find a key, which he agreed should not have taken so long.

Hyde said attempting to enter through windows would have “guaranteed all the children in the rooms would be killed” along with several officers. He said this “reckless and ineffective” action, when police could not see where the shooter was, would have made officers easy targets to be picked off at will.

Ure, who as an attendee was wounded in the hand during the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 60 people, acknowledged the post-Columbine wisdom that immediately confronting shooters is paramount. But he said the scene inside Robb Elementary presented a “perfect storm” of an active shooter barricaded with hostages.

“There’s no manual for this type of scenario,” Ure said. “If people need to be held appropriately accountable, then so be it. But I think the lynch-mob mentality right now isn’t serving any purpose, and it’s borderline reckless.”

Questions over command

The day after the shooting, Arredondo and other local officials stood behind Gov. Greg Abbott and DPS Director Steve McCraw as they held their first major news conference to address the slaughter.

Abbott lauded law enforcement agencies for their “amazing courage” and said the actions of police officers were the reason the shooting was “not worse.” McCraw said a school resource officer had “engaged” the shooter outside the building but was unable to stop him from entering.

To Arredondo, that information did not ring true. Arredondo turned to a DPS official, whom he declined to identify, and asked why state officials had been given inaccurate information.

In a stunning reversal at a news conference the next day, the DPS regional director for the area, Victor Escalon, retracted McCraw’s initial claim and said the gunman “was not confronted by anybody” before entering the school.

At a third news conference the following afternoon, Abbott said he was “livid” about being “misled” about the police response to the shooting. He said his incorrect remarks were merely a recitation of what officers had told him.

Hyde said the inaccurate information did not come from Arredondo, who had briefed state and law enforcement officials about the shooting before the first press conference. Abbott on Wednesday declined to identify who had misled him, saying only that the bad information had come from “public officials.”

McCraw also told reporters that Arredondo, whom he identified by his position rather than his name, treated the gunman as a “barricaded suspect” rather than an active shooter, which McCraw deemed a mistake. In the news conference, McCraw referred to Arredondo as the shooting’s “incident commander.”

Hyde said Arredondo did not issue any orders to other law enforcement agencies and had no knowledge that they considered him the incident commander.

The National Incident Management System, which guides all levels of government on how to respond to mass emergency events, says that the first person on scene is the incident commander. That incident commander remains in that charge until they relinquish it or are incapacitated.

Hyde acknowledged those guidelines but said Arredondo’s initial response to the shooting was not that of an incident commander, but of a first responder.

“Once he became engaged, intimately involved on the front line of this case, he is one of those that is in the best position to continue to resolve the incident at that time,” Hyde said. “So while it’s easy to identify him as the incident commander because of that NIMS process, in practicality, you see here he was not in the capacity to be able to run this entire organization.”

With no radio and no way to receive up-to-date information about what was happening outside of the hallway, Hyde said, another one of the local, state and federal agencies that arrived at the scene should have taken over command.

Nichols, the former Seguin police chief, dismissed the idea that another officer would seamlessly adopt the incident commander role simply because Arredondo never did. He said decisive commanders are especially important when multiple agencies respond to an incident and are unsure how to work together.

“You know the facility. You’re the most intimately knowledgeable about this,” Nichols said of Arredondo. “Take command and set what your priorities need to be, right now.”

On May 31, officials with DPS, which is investigating the Uvalde shooting, told news outlets that Arredondo was no longer cooperating with the agency. The agency’s investigative unit, the Texas Rangers, wanted to continue talking with the police chief, but he had not responded to the agency’s request for two days, DPS officials said.

Hyde said Arredondo participated in multiple interviews with DPS in the days following the shooting, including a law enforcement debriefing the day of the attack and a videotaped debriefing with DPS analysts and the FBI the day after.

He’d also briefed the governor and other state officials and had multiple follow-up calls with DPS for its investigation.

But after McCraw said at a press conference on May 27 that Arredondo made the “wrong decision,” the police chief “no longer participated in the investigation to avoid media interference,” Hyde said.

The Rangers had asked Arredondo to come in for another interview, but he told investigators he could not do it on the day they asked because he was covering shifts for his officers, Hyde said.

“At no time did he communicate his unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation,” Hyde said. “His phone was flooded with calls and messages from numbers he didn’t recognize, and it’s possible he missed calls from DPS but still maintained daily interaction by phone with DPS assisting with logistics as requested.”

Hyde said Arredondo is open to cooperating with the Rangers investigation but would like to see a transcript of his previous comments.

“That’s a fair thing to ask for before he has to then discuss it again because, as time goes by, all the information that he hears, it’s hard to keep straight,” Hyde said.

Hundreds wait in line holding flowers and each other to pay their respects at a memorial in front of the Robb Elementary School on Saturday evening.

Children visited the memorial at Robb Elementary on May 28. Hundreds of people waited in line holding flowers and one another to pay their respects there. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

“They loved those kids”

When the gunman was dead, police had another grim task: moving the tiny bodies of injured children out of the room and getting them emergency medical care as soon as possible.

A line was formed to gently but quickly move them out. Each child passed through Arredondo’s arms.

Later that night, Arredondo went to the Uvalde civic center, where families waited desperately for news that their loved ones had survived, or had at worst been taken to the hospital for treatment.

For Arredondo, his lawyer said, telling families that “no additional kids were coming out of the school alive was the toughest part of his career.”

The chaotic law enforcement response to the shooting by local, state and federal agencies is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Texas Department of Public Safety. It is the subject of an investigative committee of the Texas Legislature and will be the source of months of scrutiny by public officials, survivors and the families of the deceased. Survivors and the families of victims have started contacting lawyers for potential legal action.

Arredondo’s role will be central to all of those probes.

For now, he is avoiding the public eye, having left his home temporarily because it is under constant watch by news reporters.

But he’s also been unable to mourn with his community.

Arredondo grew up in the community and attended Robb Elementary as a boy. He started his career at the Uvalde Police Department and spent 16 years there before moving to Laredo for work.

He returned to his hometown in 2020 to head up the school district’s police department. He and his police officers loved high-fiving the schoolchildren on his visits to the schools, Hyde said.

“It was the highlight of his days,” Hyde said. “They loved those kids.”

Arredondo’s ties to the shooting are also familial. One of the teachers killed by the gunman, Irma Garcia, was married to Arredondo’s second cousin, Joe Garcia. Garcia died suddenly two days after his wife’s death.

Arredondo grew up with Joe Garcia and went to school with him. But when the funeral services started, Arredondo said he opted against attending because he didn’t want his presence to distract from the Garcias’ grieving loved ones.

His small police department is also suffering.

Eva Mireles, another teacher killed by the gunman, was married to Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police officer Ruben Ruiz.

“They lost a person that they consider family,” Hyde said.

To relieve his grieving officers, Arredondo has picked up extra shifts at the police department.

And he’s received death threats and negative messages from people he does not know.

“Those are people who just don’t know the whole story that are making their assumptions on what they’re hearing or reading. That’s been difficult,” he said. “The police in Uvalde, we’re like your family, your brothers and sisters. We help each other out at any cost, and we’re used to helping out the community, period, because that’s what most public servants are about.”

Arredondo said he remains proud of his response and that of his other officers that day. He believes they saved lives. He also believes that fate brought him back home for a reason.

“No one in my profession wants to ever be in anything like this,” Arredondo said. “But being raised here in Uvalde, I was proud to be here when this happened. I feel like I came back home for a reason, and this might possibly be one of the main reasons why I came back home. We’re going to keep on protecting our community at whatever cost.”

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/09/uvalde-chief-pete-arredondo-interview/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

In battered Uvalde, where a police chief is in hiding, grief gives way to calls for accountability

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

UVALDE — Everyone in town is waiting to hear from Pete Arredondo.

As chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, it was his call to wait more than an hour for backup instead of ordering officers on scene to immediately charge the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. The chief of the state police later said this was the “wrong decision, period.”

Now, Arredondo is a man in hiding, as calls for answers and accountability grow louder each day.

In the week since state police singled him out for blame, Arredondo has hardly been seen.

Police officers stand guard outside his home. He has declined to explain his actions, telling a television crew that staked out his office he would not do so until after the victims’ funerals. City officials, too, have assisted in the vanishing act. They canceled a previously scheduled public ceremony Tuesday and instead swore in Arredondo in secret for his latest role on the City Council.

[Uvalde school district’s police chief didn’t know about 911 calls coming from inside the school, lawmaker says]

Even state police complained this week that Arredondo has remained elusive to them, accusing him of not cooperating with a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation into the shooting, a claim Arredondo refuted. The New York Times reported Friday that the chief arrived on scene without a radio, hampering his ability to organize the response.

Residents here remain in mourning. Each day repeats a cycle of at least two funerals followed by processions to the cemetery on the west edge of town. Their grief, however, is giving way to frustration about how local officials have responded to the tragedy and conversations about how to hold them accountable.

For many, this starts with firing Arredondo and overhauling his department, which they believe failed the students it was supposed to keep safe.

“They were cowards,” said Salvador Hurtado, a retired farm worker, who said Arredondo should lose his job. “There was one man with a gun, and they waited and waited. … I read the signs on the police cars that say ‘protect and serve.’ Where was the protection?”

But residents here also expressed broader desire for transparency from city and school district officials, whom they feel have retreated from serving their constituents at a time they are needed most.

City Hall has locked its doors during business hours and declined to immediately provide any public records to reporters. The chief of the city police force, Daniel Rodriguez, has declined to answer questions about his officers’ response to the shooting. A Uvalde CISD official told a reporter, falsely, that the first school board meeting since the incident would be closed to the public.

At the special meeting, scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m., board members will decide whether to grant the superintendent more power during emergencies. A second agenda item allows the board to reassign, suspend or fire district employees, including Arredondo — whose name does not explicitly appear on the agenda.

Board members did not respond to requests for comment about their intentions. Whether Arredondo will attend the meeting, as he has in the past, is unknown.

Authorities prepare to evacuate students and teachers after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022.

Law enforcement officers prepared to evacuate students and teachers May 24 after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Credit: Courtesy of Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader News

Lydia Morales, who grew up in Uvalde, said local government has long been insular. She feels officials protect each other and give preferential treatment to friends and allies. She criticized Mayor Don McLaughlin for initially saying Arredondo would not be sworn in as planned. Arredondo was subsequently sworn in Monday at City Hall in a secret ceremony.

“He lied to the community of Uvalde,” Morales said. “But shame on Arredondo for even doing that. I can’t see how he would have the audacity.”

A familiar face

Arredondo, 50, became chief of the Uvalde CISD department in 2020. The tiny force of a half dozen officers, formed two years earlier, is responsible for security at the district’s eight schools. Officers also direct traffic and staff sporting events, and Arredondo said last year that the hiring of two officers would allow for a greater focus on narcotics.

The department also participated in active shooter trainings, including one in December, according to state records.

Arredondo is a Uvalde native who began his career in the city’s police department, where he spent 16 years, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records. He spent the next 12 years in Laredo, first with the Webb County Sheriff’s Office and then United ISD police, before returning to his hometown. Arredondo told the Uvalde Leader-News he “didn’t even have to think twice” about applying once he saw the job opening.

“We are confident with our selection and impressed with his experience, knowledge and community involvement,” Superintendent Hal Harrell said after the school board unanimously approved the hire in February 2020. “Chief Arredondo is well-versed in the expanded expectations in student and school safety and will stay current as changes occur.”

Arredondo launched his political career this spring by announcing a bid for City Council in his district, which abuts Robb Elementary. He pledged to knock on every constituent’s door to introduce himself and hand out his phone number. At an April candidate forum, Arredondo said communication is the key to solving complicated issues.

“I guess to me, nothing’s complicated, everything has a solution,” he said at the time. “And that solution starts with communication.”

Arredondo was elected May 7 with 69% of the vote.

Jorge Botello, 68, said Arredondo is well known and well liked around town, a familiar presence providing security at football games and other events. He said Arredondo is an avid fisherman and often posts pictures of his catches on Facebook.

Botello said he’s unsure how much blame Arredondo deserves but he understands why some residents are angry at the chief and agreed public officials should be held accountable. But he also said he understood why Arredondo has avoided appearing in public since state officials criticized his conduct during the shooting.

A campaign sign for Pete Arredondo sits outside a home blocks away from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on June 1, 2022. Arredondo, Police Chief of Ulvade CISD, was a part of the six-person force that led the response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary.

A campaign sign for Pete Arredondo sat outside a home Wednesday blocks away from Robb Elementary School. Arredondo, police chief of Uvalde CISD, was a part of the six-person force that led the response to the mass shooting last week at the school. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

“If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t go into the City Council right now,” Botello said. “I would just stay low, just to ease the public tension because a lot of people are angry. Nothing you say will make someone say ‘oh, it’s OK.’ If my grandkids or my kids had gotten killed … I would be really upset.”

Friends and neighbors in Arredondo’s neighborhood, who did not want their names published given the scrutiny he now faces, described him as a kind man who cares about his community. One friend who is a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent cautioned against rushing to judgment before all the facts about the shooting are known. He also questioned why the state DPS would lay blame squarely on Arredondo when state troopers also responded to the shooting.

“How come DPS didn’t intervene?” he asked. “They had more law enforcement there.”

A relative who declined to be interviewed said Arredondo is not the bad guy some have made him out to be and suggested the chief needs to speak up for himself.

Many residents said they are unsure who to blame in part because the authorities have repeatedly changed their narrative of what happened. In the three days following the shooting, state officials said one of Arredondo’s officers engaged the shooter before he entered the school, then said that was false; they said a school employee had failed to lock the door through which the shooter entered, then said that, too, was not true.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he had been misled by police shortly after DPS Director Steve McCraw said Arredondo’s decision to wait for specialized officers before attempting to engage the gunman was “the wrong decision, period.”

[Gov. Greg Abbott says he was misled about poor police response to Uvalde shooting]

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, told reporters Thursday he was dismayed that local and state officials have not been forthcoming with an accurate, detailed account of their actions during the shooting. Among the outstanding questions is why Arredondo, with his tiny police force, remained incident commander even though larger police agencies with more active shooter experience also responded.

“We need transparency and that hasn’t happened here,” he said. “We’ve gotten some bad answers. We’ve gotten information that the next day turns out to be different.”

And Gutierrez disclosed that he had learned from state authorities that the 911 calls made by students during the shooting would have been routed to the Uvalde city police and not the school district police department, a planning failure that could have deprived Arredondo of critical information on which to base his decisions.

An Uvalde County sheriff’s deputy who was among the first responders to the shooting, however, said dispatchers did relay over the radio that students were making 911 calls from inside the adjoining classrooms where the gunman was. With his back flat against the brick exterior of the school, the group of four officers with him, including Border Patrol agents and a Zapata County sheriff’s deputy, questioned why no one had given a command to rush the shooter.

“We’re against that wall, hearing gunshots,” said the deputy, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. “I was saying, what are we waiting for?”

A town worn out

Ten days have passed since the massacre. The passage of time is marked by the height of flowers stacked at the memorial in the town square, now sitting 3 feet high in some places. The afternoon heat has wilted the leaves on wreaths commemorating the dead.

Imelda Garcia, 49, restocks melons at her mother Argelia Arellano’s produce stand in Uvalde on June 3, 2022.

Imelda Garcia, 49, restocked melons Friday at her mother’s produce stand in Uvalde on June 3. The family has noticed a lack of Uvalde police presence in town after the school shooting. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Residents express an overwhelming sense of fatigue. From keeping track of visitations at the two funeral homes in town. From fielding reporters’ questions on their front porches. From attempting to make sense of how the shooter was not an outsider who came here to do evil, but a teenager who attended school here and worked at the Wendy’s.

They have already seen the memorials, back before the rose petals curled and the prayer candles burned to the wick. Most of the visitors now to the town square and another memorial along the sun-baked sidewalk by the school are out-of-towners who wish to pay their respects

In the quiet neighborhoods and side streets, there is a desire to return to normal life — but for that life to be better.

From her family’s produce stand on Main Street, Angelia Arellano has watched police cars from Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley drive by in the past week. Officers from across the state have come to assist their local counterparts. She said the city police department appears to have retreated from public view at precisely the moment they should be out in the community as it grieves.

Their absence reinforces Arellano’s belief, forged in a lifetime of living in Uvalde, that the police cannot be relied upon. She said they refused to respond when she once called about a man who was harassing her son.

“The police aren’t very effective,” she said in Spanish. “If there’s no blood and no one has been killed, they don’t come.”

Mary Rodriguez, 86, sat outside in the shade Thursday afternoon chatting up her neighbor, Tonita Torres. Like almost everyone in this community of 15,000, Rodriguez has a personal connection to the victims.

Her children attended Robb Elementary. She remembers giving popsicles to little Joe Garcia, who grew up to be a grocery manager and suffered a fatal heart attack two days after his wife, a teacher, was killed in the shooting. Nine of the children who died went to her church.

Mary Rodriguez, 86, sits in the living room of her home in Uvalde on June 3, 2022. She used to host church events and communion celebrations there for several of the children who were killed or affected by the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last week.

Mary Rodriguez, 86, used to host church events and communion celebrations at her Uvalde home for several of the children who were killed or affected by the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last week. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Through tears, Rodriguez said her heart breaks at the thought that students could have been saved if the police had acted sooner. She said her faith dictates her to let God judge Arredondo. She said she feels local police are not held in high regard by Uvalde residents and that they have been slow to respond whenever she has called. Their failure to act decisively during the shooting, she said, is inexcusable.

“We don’t want those policemen to be here,” Rodriguez said. “I pray that they get new jobs somewhere else.”

Alexa Ura and Jason Beeferman contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Facebook and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/03/pete-arredondo-uvalde-school-police-chief/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

After another mass shooting, Texas Democrats again push for gun control measures

By James Barragán and Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

May 30, 2022

After the Uvalde school shooting that left 21 people dead, Texas Democrats are once again urging state leaders to enact gun control measures to help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke confronted state leaders last week during a news conference, telling his Republican opponent, Gov. Greg Abbott, he was “doing nothing” and saying the mass shooting was “totally predictable.” The party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Mike Collier, has blamed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for loosening gun laws in the state instead of tightening them after previous mass shootings. And on Saturday, Texas Senate Democrats sent a letter to the governor demanding a special session to pass gun control legislation.

“‘Thoughts and prayers’ are not enough,” 13 Democrats wrote in the letter.” We need evidence-based, common sense gun safety laws.”

The question moving forward is whether Democrats, outnumbered in the Texas Legislature for two decades, will be able to put enough pressure on lawmakers to move on a previously intractable issue in gun-friendly Texas and that Republicans, who support looser gun laws, will fight tooth and nail.

Mark Owens, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Tyler who conducts regular polling on state politics, said there is an opportunity for Democrats because Texans have been dissatisfied with the state’s response to previous mass shootings. Last April, 59% of Texans surveyed in a poll by the university and The Dallas Morning News said they disagreed that elected officials were doing enough to prevent mass shootings. Only 21% of respondents agreed.

“The public wants to see this issue continue to be looked at based on the evidence that they were dissatisfied in the last legislative session,” Owens said.

Democrat proposals

Texas Democrats have so far laid out a broad range of proposals in response to the shooting.

O’Rourke, the state’s most high-profile Democrat, is inching back toward the call to ban assault rifles that he became known for after the El Paso mass shooting in 2019 during his presidential run.

At the time, he called for a mandatory assault rifle buy-back program, but he’s been less vocal about such bans during his run for governor.

This week, however, he lamented to reporters that it was “insane that we allow an 18-year-old to go in and buy an AR-15.”

He also tweaked language on his campaign website this week that previously said, “We need to reduce the number” of assault rifles on the streets. Now it more firmly says “I don’t believe any civilian should own an AR-15 or AK-47.”

On Friday, O’Rourke’s campaign released a nearly two-minute online ad blasting Abbott for signing a bill that would allow Texans to carry a handgun without a license or training in last year’s legislative session, which followed mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa in 2019.

The ad includes footage of two police chiefs speaking against the proposal and saying it would make the jobs of their officers more difficult.

The letter from Texas Senate Democrats laid out five specific gun control proposals it urged the Legislature to pass immediately in a special session: raising the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21, requiring universal background checks for all firearm sales, implementing “red flag” laws to allow the temporary removal of firearms from those who pose imminent danger, require a waiting period for the purchase of a gun, and regulating civilian ownership of high-capacity magazines.

Collier, the lieutenant governor candidate, and Democratic attorney general candidate Rochelle Garza have also called on Abbott to convene a special session of the Legislature to respond to the Uvalde shooting.

“How many years ago was El Paso? How many years ago was Santa Fe? How many years ago was Sutherland Springs?” Collier said, referring to past mass shootings. “For them, they refuse to talk about it ever. All they’re trying to do is cover their sorry asses, and children are getting killed. I think we gotta talk about it right now.”

Collier said he would push to eliminate the law passed last year that allows Texans to carry handguns without a license or training and would instead urge lawmakers to pass red flag laws, stronger background checks for gun sales, safe gun storage requirements and raising the minimum age to buy guns from 18 to 21.

Collier said there’s a political appetite to make change at the Legislature, but it is stopped by Patrick.

“Take Dan Patrick out, put Mike Collier in, then the Senate will work with the House to get this done,” he said.

During his travels throughout the state, Collier said he’s met many Republican officials who support the gun control measures he is discussing but they are afraid to discuss it publicly.

“You talk to ordinary Texans — Democrats, independents and Republicans — and they want gun safety,” he said.

Republican opposition

But Democrats won’t be working in a vacuum. Republican leadership is already flatly rejecting gun control measures, opting to focus on arming more teachers, increasing mental health resources and increasing police staffing at schools. Texas members of the National Rifle Association, a powerful voting bloc in conservative politics, told The Texas Tribune on Friday at the organization’s annual conference in Houston that they were unwilling to support any new gun restrictions.

On Friday, Abbott dismissed any suggestion of rolling back gun laws he signed to loosen gun restrictions and he dismissed the efficacy of background checks.

“Let's be clear about one thing, none of the laws I signed this past session had any intersection with this crime at all,” Abbott said. “No law that I signed allowed him to get a gun.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said Democrats and news reporters were trying to “politicize” the tragedy.

“Inevitably when there’s a murder of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “That doesn’t work. It’s not effective. It doesn’t prevent crime.”

Owens said that given voter support for Republicans in the state, GOP lawmakers won’t feel a need to make changes unless polling starts indicating that voter feelings toward mass shootings and the state’s response to them are becoming more negative.

In last April’s poll, 51% of Republicans and 37% of independents said state officials were doing enough to prevent such events.

“If the polls start shifting and races get closer and the public continues to talk about the topic, then the incumbent begins to talk about what they’d do as well,” Owens said.

David Thomason, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University, said Democrats would have to be careful about their approach if they want to win over the Texas public. The party would need buy-in from independent voters and Republicans, some of whom support limited gun control measures. Sixty percent of independent voters said they disagreed that state leaders had done enough to prevent mass shootings in last year’s UT-Tyler poll.

But pushing forward on measures seen as too extreme, like the mandatory gun buybacks O’Rourke has pushed in the past, could turn off rural, suburban and independent voters who could be persuaded to support other measures.

“The Democrats need to rethink how they approach guns and the relationship between guns and violence,” Thomason said. “It’s not a single issue — a single regulation will not change how someone commits violent actions. There are many pieces to it.”

Thomason also said the Democrats would have to strike the right tone in persuading pro-gun Texans to push for gun control measures. He said O’Rourke’s interruption of a press conference updating the public on the shooting would probably play against him in many parts of the state he needs to win over.

“Although he expresses what so many Texans feel, the consequences of that for voters that are in rural areas and suburban areas that are in the middle trying to decide do they want to stay with Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick or do they want to jump onto a new train, that didn’t help him with those voters because it doesn't show leadership,” he said. “[The Republicans will] easily show him as just creating a political circus out of a moment of tragedy.”

So far, Democrats are not heeding that advice, confronting Republicans directly and publicly.

“When I heard [Abbott] was not going to do a single thing I knew I had to speak up and to do this on behalf of everyone who wants us to actually change things so that no family has to deal with the loss of a child or a loved one,” O’Rourke said in Uvalde. “We need to be honest about what’s happening and why it’s happening and what we have to do to keep it from happening and that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, expressed skepticism that O’Rourke’s decision to confront Abbott would backfire politically. He said the stunt tapped into the outrage many Texans feel over how state leaders have responded to the shooting.

“Anyone who thinks it was a bad idea probably wasn’t going to vote for O’Rourke anyway,” Blank said. “What O’Rourke was doing was expressing the frustration and anger that a lot of Democrats feel, and independents feel and Republicans feel. That’s not something he could wait two weeks to do; it wouldn’t have the same weight.”

Thomason said any policy change will be a heavy lift that will require compromise, something that is in short supply in politics these days.

“The smart move politically right now is to say ‘Let’s work together and not put your finger out and start yelling,’” Thomason said. “Put your hand out like a handshake and say let’s work together to solve this.”

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/30/texas-democrats-gun-control-uvalde/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

NRA member complains backlash after mass shootings 'puts us under stress'

When Guy Schwartz heard about the shooting at an elementary school that killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde this week, his heart sank, both as a father of two and a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association who for months had eagerly awaited this year’s convention in Houston, the first after the pandemic canceled it for two years.

“It is just unimaginable,” said Schwartz, a 67-year-old insurance broker in Las Vegas, Nev. “I couldn’t imagine sending my kids to school and then not coming home.”

But as he admired the display of new assault rifles at a booth in the sprawling George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, Schwartz said he knew the shooting would once again inflame the tense debate about gun control in the U.S., which he said always seems to vilify responsible gun owners like himself who simply want to protect the Second Amendment.

“Every time we have a whack job that shoots up people, it puts us under stress,” he said.

Thousands of devoted NRA members descended to Houston on Friday, 250 miles east of the site where the children, all 10 years old or younger, were gunned down by an 18-year-old with two legally purchased assault rifles. They attended the event, which was headlined by former President Donald Trump — just 72 hours after the massacre — despite other speakers and musical performers canceling out of respect for the victims and as Democrats and gun control advocates called for the event to be canceled or moved.

In interviews with The Texas Tribune, a dozen NRA convention attendees were horrified by the Uvalde shooting. But they were also unified in their belief that the shooter’s access to guns was not to blame.

Instead, they attributed this attack and others to a broader breakdown in society wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness.

They described feeling ostracized for their beliefs, and not just those on guns. For their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For their objections to gay people serving as teachers. For their belief in disciplining children through spanking.

“Society is going downhill and the problems are getting bigger and bigger,” said Lyndon Boff, a 67-year-old retiree from Florida. “I hate that so many people got killed in this shooting. But the first thing you have is a president that says ‘we got to do something about it, because it’s guns that killed the people.’ No. It’s their programs teaching children in school that our country is a bunch of crap.”

For many, conversations about gun rights quickly slipped into other cultural topics as they framed any attempt at curtailing gun rights as chipping away at their freedoms, preventing their ability to defend themselves and changing America’s culture as a whole.

“It’s not a gun problem, it’s a society problem,” said Bill Forcht, a 71-year-old retired management executive at the Coca-Cola company who lives in Magnolia, just outside of Houston. “They want to demonize us because we like shooting guns and believe in defending ourselves.”

Their sense of a culture under siege was underscored by more than 1,000 protesters across the street, chanting furiously and waving signs such as “their blood is on your hands” and asking attendees at the convention to “honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to use AR-15s.”

Watching the protests on the sidewalk outside the convention center, a 53-year-old Tennessee woman who would only identify herself by her first name, Anna, said the obvious response to Uvalde would be to arm classroom teachers.

“If you allow somebody to defend themselves the way our Second Amendment was intended… you’ll stop a lot of this,” she said. “Stop pussy-footing with these poeple.”

Her husband Paul, 68, struck a more conspiratorial tone, suggesting without evidence that gun control advocates planned the Uvalde attack to gin up public support for their cause.

Inside the cavernous downtown Houston event space, the convention proceeded as if the type of AR-15 rifle on display in dozens of booths had not been used to kill 21 people just days earlier. Thousands of attendees, who skewed older and whiter than the average demographics of Texas, perused exhibits, attended seminars and voted in a NRA leadership election.

Some of the vendors reflected the gun organization’s roots representing the interests of hunters and sport shooters. Others showcased historic firearms with little modern application. A significant number of vendors and classes promoted guns for self-defense, reflecting the modern NRA’s hardline stance opposing almost any regulation of gun ownership. One seminar offered tips on how to draw a pistol as quickly as possible; a video advertising a vendor’s short-barreled semiautomatic rifle depicted a man using the weapon against a home invader.

The rhetoric of the event’s speakers and attendees conceded a troubling theory: That no government intervention or policy can stop gunmen intent on slaughter from assaulting our schools, offices and other public spaces. They posited that the best society can hope for is to stop them from entering by improving armed security and physical barriers. And if those fail, the responsibility to stop a rampage and triage wounded falls on average citizens with personal weapons.

At an active threats seminar Friday morning, presenter Kris Sacra said training average citizens on how to stop blood loss from gunshot wounds can minimize deaths during mass shootings. He added this is especially important when — as was in the case in Uvalde — first responders cannot or will not intervene quickly.

“Each one of my girls has a ballistic plate in their backpack,” Sacra said. “Each one of my girls knows how to put a tourniquet on.”

The afternoon speakers at the main event echoed those points. Each condemned the Uvalde attack but none of their proposed reforms to prevent future shootings involved restrictions on guns. Gov. Greg Abbott, who canceled his planned in-person speech in favor of a taped one, said new laws would not have stopped the Uvalde shooter because he didn’t bother to follow existing ones — first by bringing a gun onto school grounds and then by committing murder.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz spoke about “evil” that caused the shooting in Uvalde and has happened “too many damn times.” He said the Second Amendment has “never been more necessary” during a period when he said there were practices of “defunding the police,” increasing homelessness and district attorneys who “refuse to prosecute violent crime.”

He said attempts to restrict access to guns would not work, but offered few ideas for what would. Most notably, he said schools should have single entry points much like federal buildings and suggested installing bulletproof doors and locking classrooms.

“At that single point of entry, we should have multiple armed police officers,” Cruz said. “Or if need be, military veterans trained to provide security and keep our children safe.”

Former President Donald Trump, who criticized Abbott for his absence, made similar suggestions for improving physical security at schools.

Such a lack of any substantive recommendations filled Paul Castro with rage as he stood across the convention center in Discovery Green park, holding a giant photo of his 17-year-old son, David. The teen was shot and killed last year after the family left an Astros baseball game in downtown Houston.

Police have said a twice-convicted felon who should never have had a gun followed Castro onto Interstate 10 after he didn’t let him merge during snarled post-game traffic. He shot into the truck, killing the teen. Castro held David as he died.

“It makes me mad at the same politicians saying the same thing that they have been saying since Columbine,” said Castro, a superintendent at A +UP Charter School in Houston.

Limiting school entrances and arming teachers are laughable, he said, if the topic wasn’t so critical. He noted that police in Uvalde didn’t enter the elementary school for almost an hour, according to authorities. DPS Chief Col. Steve McCraw on Friday blamed a supervising officer who wanted to wait for backup officers and equipment.

“Armed police were on the premises and didn't go in and now you want Miss Smith in elementary school to take a shot?” the superintendent asked. “It’s disingenuous and a lie and it stops politicians from taking responsibility. It is hypocrisy at its worst.”

Businesses that help employees get abortions could be next target of Texas lawmakers if Roe v. Wade is overturned

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

With Texas poised to automatically ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, some Republicans are already setting their sights on the next target to fight the procedure: businesses that say they’ll help employees get abortions outside the state.

Fourteen Republican members of the state House of Representatives have pledged to introduce bills in the coming legislative session that would bar corporations from doing business in Texas if they pay for abortions in states where the procedure is legal.

This would explicitly prevent firms from offering employees access to abortion-related care through health insurance benefits. It would also expose executives to criminal prosecution under pre-Roe anti-abortion laws the Legislature never repealed, the legislators say.

Their proposal highlights how the end of abortion would lead to a new phase in — not the end of — the fight in Texas over the procedure. The lawmakers pushing for the business rules have signaled that they plan to act aggressively in the next legislative session. But it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get a majority on their side.

The members, led by Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, laid out their plans in a letter to Lyft CEO Logan Green that became public on Wednesday.

Green drew the lawmakers’ attention on April 29, when he said on Twitter that the ride-share company would help pregnant residents of Oklahoma and Texas seek abortion care in other states. Green also pledged to cover the legal costs of any Lyft driver sued under Senate Bill 8, the Texas law that empowers private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion.

“The state of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn children,” the letter states.

The letter also lays out other legislative priorities, including allowing Texas shareholders of publicly traded companies to sue executives for paying for abortion care, as well as empowering district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes outside of their home counties.

Six of the 14 signers, including Cain, are members of the far-right Texas Freedom Caucus. How much political support these proposals have in the Republican caucus is unclear. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond.

Since the legislative session is more than seven months away, Cain said in an email that “a quickly drafted and sent letter can hardly be said to reflect the pulse of my Republican colleagues.” He was confident, however, that his ideas would find some support in the Senate.

“Knowing that chamber and its leadership, I’m willing to bet legislation targeting this issue will be promptly filed in January,” Cain said.

But doing so would likely mean targeting companies that the state has wooed as potential job creators. Tesla, for instance, announced this month that it would pay for employees’ travel costs when they leave the state to get an abortion. Abbott celebrated the electric car company’s move to Austin last year and this year urged its CEO, Elon Musk, to move Twitter’s headquarters to Texas, too, if he completes his purchase of the social media firm.

Republican politicians have to tread much more carefully on abortion politics if Roe v. Wade falls, said Florida State University professor Mary Ziegler, who wrote a book on abortion law in the United States. Whereas in the past, lawmakers could pass any number of abortion restrictions that were bound to be struck down by courts, that backstop would no longer exist.

Ziegler said while a broad conservative coalition wants to ban abortions in Texas, there is disagreement over how aggressively to enforce related criminal laws or to attempt to prevent pregnant residents from leaving the state for the procedure. Republican politicians, therefore, have an incentive to remain quiet on the issue until they can determine which course of action is the most politically prudent.

“It’s not easy to be a Republican anymore,” Ziegler said. “Before, everyone was like, ‘Yes, let’s get rid of Roe v. Wade.’ Now, if you can do whatever you want, what is it that you want to do?”

Lyft did not respond to a request for comment. Several other large companies, including Amazon, Uber and Starbucks, have also said they would help employees or customers seek abortion care outside of Texas. None responded to requests for comment.

Concerns from the business community helped derail a push by Republican lawmakers to enact the so-called bathroom bill in the 2017 session, which would have required people to use the facilities that corresponded with their sex assigned at or near birth. Moderate Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, rebuffed requests from Patrick to make the bill a priority.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said that although Straus has since retired, she hoped a coalition of Democrats and centrist Republicans would form to block abortion-related laws that place new restrictions on businesses.

“There were opportunities for business-minded Republicans and business-minded Democrats to come together and prevent these kinds of extreme policies,” Howard said of Straus’ tenure. “I’m hopeful that will happen again. … We’re at a pivotal point here of doing severe damage that’s going to be hard to undo.

The Texas Association of Businesses, Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives and Greater Houston Partnership either declined to comment or did not respond to questions about the abortion-restriction proposals in the Republicans’ letter.

Disclosure: The Greater Houston Partnership, Lyft and the Texas Association of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Tickets are on sale now for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 22-24. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/23/texas-companies-pay-abortions/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

New Texas plan for federal Hurricane Harvey aid yields same old result

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

May 16, 2022

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

[Feds say Texas discriminated against communities of color when it denied Houston flood aid]

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

Neither the land office, nor Bush’s campaign for attorney general responded to interview requests. Bush also did not respond to specific questions emailed to his office for this story.

But his spokesperson said last year that inland areas are vulnerable to extreme weather, too, and also serve as safe havens for coastal evacuees.

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

An influx of aid

Austin, Texas USA Nov. 15, 2017: George P. Bush greets  U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Texas regional office with Energy Secy. Rick Perry for a Hurricane Harvey recovery update from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

George P. Bush greets U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at a Hurricane Harvey recovery update at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Texas regional office for on Nov. 15, 2017. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Harvey killed 103 Texans and dumped an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water between Rockport and the Louisiana coast.

The following year, Congress gave $4.3 billion in disaster mitigation aid in response to the storm, as well as floods in 2015 and 2016. Of that total, Texas reserved $2.6 billion for preparedness projects in Harvey-damaged areas. Gov. Greg Abbott tapped Bush and the land office for the job.

HUD designated 20 counties, mostly on the coast, to receive the aid — including major population centers that were ravaged by Harvey like Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi.

The task of dividing up that money would be difficult because demand for disaster mitigation money — for projects like drainage systems and stormwater detention basins — far exceeds the available dollars.

One of Bush’s first decisions was to designate an additional 29 counties, mostly inland, as eligible recipients. The new counties invited into the process had populations that were whiter, more rural and packed with a higher proportion of Donald Trump voters than the original group of counties picked by the federal government.

Though permitted by federal rules, the move decreased the likelihood that projects in coastal counties would be funded.

To divide up $1 billion of the pot, the land office held a scoring competition which asked local governments to submit project proposals. The results, announced in May 2021, left disaster recovery experts and urban politicians of both parties stunned.

Harris County, home to more residents than the other eligible counties combined, received 9% of the funds. That’s despite its ranking as the fourth most disaster-prone county by the state’s own metric — the Composite Disaster Index, which ranks all 254 Texas counties based on their history of seven types of disasters over the past two decades.

Red Stewart salvages useful items from a flood pile at a trailer park on the north side of  Houston along Gulf Bank Road Wednesday, September 6, 2017 which has flood multiple times including Tropical Storm Harvey. (Photo by Michael Stravato)

Red Stewart salvages useful items from a Hurricane Harvey flood pile at a trailer park on the north side of Houston on Sept. 6, 2017. Harris County received just 9% of the $1 billion in Harvey aid distributed by the Texas General Land office, while the rest of the money was channeled into lower-risk inland counties. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

HUD-picked Nueces and Aransas counties, where Harvey made landfall, received nothing despite ranking as the state’s 10th and 39th most disaster-prone counties, respectively. Jefferson County, which ranks seventh and recorded the highest rain totals during Harvey, also received zero money. Sabine County, ranked 141st, was designated by the state as a recipient and received $14 million.

A Houston Chronicle investigation last year revealed the land office developed distribution criteria that discriminated against populous areas. As a result, aid flowed disproportionately to the group of inland counties selected by the state.

Eager to claim credit for how his office distributed the federal aid, Bush’s office published 39 news releases the day the competition results went public, each tailored to a different county that had projects funded. Eleven days later, Bush announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general. The timing struck some on the coast as more than a coincidence.

“If I’m his campaign team, I say ‘hey, let’s roll this out around this time,’” said Joseph Ramirez, an adviser to the Nueces County Democratic Party.

Green, the Democratic Congressman from Houston, said he does not wish to believe Bush funneled disaster aid for his political benefit, but he strains to think of a better explanation.

“It’s so illogical to do what is being done that I can see where some people might conclude it’s all a part of an effort to curry favor with a certain group of voters,” Green said.

Whatever goodwill Bush may have built inland came at a cost. Republicans in Houston were irate at how little money Harris County received. Republican Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, a retired civil engineer, said that before the land office announcement, he had “never seen a more dysfunctional attempt to evaluate projects than this.” He accused Bush’s team of inventing criteria to justify diverting aid from Houston.

Gov. Greg Abbott along  US Sen. John Cornyn R-Texas, HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude and Tx Land Comm. George P. Bush to discuss hurricane Harvey recovery efforts at the Texas Capitol on November 17, 2017

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush discusses Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts alongside HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude at the Texas Capitol on Nov. 17, 2017. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

The Republican county commissioners were particularly irked because they had convinced their constituents to pass a $2.5 billion flood protection bond based on the pledge that it would be used to secure billions in matching federal dollars, including from the pool Bush controlled. Bush’s suggestion to a reporter that Harris County had submitted sloppy applications didn’t help matters.

Sparring with Houston’s Democratic mayor was nothing new, but now Bush was facing angry members of his own party. Ken Paxton, the Republican incumbent attorney general, would later cite Bush’s handling of the Harvey aid as evidence that he lacks the competence to hold statewide office. Bush and Paxton will face each other in a May 24 runoff.

Bush sought safer political ground. After claiming, falsely, that the Biden administration was to blame for the outcome, he decided to give $750 million of the remaining funds directly to Harris County.

The move did not mollify Houston Democrats, who felt Bush had pulled that number from thin air without evaluating the area’s actual needs, but it did provide cover to Republicans taking heat from their voters.

Bush’s impromptu plan for Harris County meant scrapping a second $1 billion scoring competition. And HUD would need to OK any changes to the original plan it had approved, a monthslong process that delayed the distribution of further aid.

Still, coastal county officials hoped the land office would recognize the mistakes in its original plan and correct them before distributing the rest of the federal disaster dollars.

A second chance

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

Peggy Bell stands outside her home in Robstown on May 3, 2022. Bell has lived in her home since building it in 1981. Her home flooded twice last year and she says trash and the overgrowth of brush downstream is to blame.

Nueces County resident Peggy Bull stands outside her home which has flooded three times since 1981. Although Nueces County ranks 10th in the disaster index of Texas counties and is close to where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, it has received no aid money from the Texas General Land Office. Credit: Michael Gonazales for The Texas Tribune

Waiting for the next storm

Residents in Nueces County are hopeful they’re not going to get snubbed a second time as disaster money is doled out.

The county sustained damage from hurricanes Harvey and then Hanna in 2020. It ranks 10th in the disaster index of Texas counties but received zero dollars from the land office scoring competition.

County Judge Barbara Canales had submitted a $98 million breakwater project to protect Corpus Christi from storm surges that was specifically modeled after a similar New Jersey proposal that won federal dollars after Hurricane Sandy.

Canales is still holding out hope she can fund the idea with a chunk of the $180 million the new land office plan awards the Coastal Bend Council of Government, which includes Nueces and six other eligible counties.

Canales said the land office was wise to designate inland areas as eligible for disaster aid because she said they have been historically ignored. She said aid distribution, however, should flow proportionally to areas that are most vulnerable.

“My only concern is that by not recognizing who’s really getting hit [by storms] first and where the damages are, you’re really not fully addressing the fiscal responsibility of it all,” Canales said. “If you look at our damage assessments, they’re not inland.”

Nueces County resident Dan Zamora in his front porch at his home on May 3, 2022. For the first time since moving here 30 years ago, Zamora's home flooded twice last year.

Nueces County resident Dan Zamora in his front porch at his home on May 3, 2022. For the first time since moving here 30 years ago, Zamora's home flooded twice last year.

Nueces County resident Dan Zamora holds his phone with a picture of flooding in front of his house last year on May 3, 2022. For the first time since moving here 30 years ago, Zamora's home flooded twice last year.

Nueces County resident Dan Zamora holds his phone with a picture of flooding in front of his house last year on May 3, 2022. For the first time since moving here 30 years ago, Zamora's home flooded twice last year. "The county judge listened and promised to get things done," Zamora said. “They promised to get the work done and they did but it’s just not finished.” Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

First: For the first time since moving here 30 years ago, Nueces County resident Dan Zamora's home flooded twice last year. Last: Zamora shows a picture of last year's flood at his house. Residents are concerned about increased flooding due to residential developments replacing the grassy fields that previously retained stormwater. Credit: Michael Gonazalez for The Texas Tribune

Longtime Nueces County residents view the new subdivisions that are being built with dread. The county is growing rapidly, developing westward away from Corpus Christi and the coast, replacing farm fields by the acre — which used to hold stormwater — with paved streets and slab foundations. Owners of older homes believe this has made flooding in the area worse.

Dan Zamora’s home had never flooded in his 29 years on County Route 52B until 3 inches of water poured in during a storm this past May. Cleaning up was a fool’s errand; 5 inches filled the single-story home during a storm six weeks later.

“We were seriously considering selling, but after we got the whole house remodeled my wife and I decided to hold off,” Zamora said. “If it happens again, we’re out of here.”

Peggy Bull’s home has flooded three times and now worries about her son, who recently bought a house that promptly had stormwater spill into the garage. Bobby Chesnutt, who also lives in the floodplain, worries if he’ll be next. Eddie Aguilera, who in 2019 caught a 3-foot gar in floodwater in his front yard — and has a photograph to prove it — mostly frets about his parents. They’re 84 and shouldn’t have to wade through floods to get to doctors appointments, he said.

Aguilera is also dismayed by the county’s focus on the breakwater proposal because it also benefits expensive commercial property on the shoreline.

“I get it — they’re looking at tourist dollars down there,” Aguilera said. “But you have people out here who have been living for years and years in flood zones.”

Coryell County Judge Roger Miller poses for a photo near a creek at low water crossing on Thursday, May 12, 2022 in Gatesville, TX. Coryell county will receive money from the government to help build bridges in areas where there are low water passes that flood in heavy rainfall and can leave certain residents with an inability to leave their homes because of the blocked roads. Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Coryell County Judge Roger Miller stands near a creek with low water crossing in Gatesville on May 12, 2022. The county plans to use $3.4 million from the Harvey aid to build bridges in areas with low water passes prone to flooding. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Unmet rural needs

Coryell County ranks 78th by the state’s disaster index score. It was eligible for federal aid the land office distributed for flood events in 2015 and 2016, though it received none. The $3.4 million it is slated to receive will come from the Harvey allotment to its council of government.

County Judge Roger Miller said the Commissioners Court has yet to decide how to use the money but that it would likely be for flood mitigation. He said the highway department has identified 76 low-water crossings that should be raised for school buses and emergency vehicles and noted that residents have drowned on county roads during flood events.

Asked about frustration among coastal residents that disaster aid is directed inland, Miller acknowledged the population disparity. But he said counties like his experience disasters, too, and also deserve better protection.

“We don’t have the density of a Harris County, so we’re not going to have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people affected,” Miller said. “But a life in Harris County is no more or less valuable than a life in Coryell County.”

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed and Texas General Land Office have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Tickets are on sale now for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 22-24. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/16/texas-harvey-disaster-aid-land-office/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans say if Roe falls, they’ll focus on adoptions and preventing women from seeking abortions elsewhere

By Zach Despart and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

During their 20 years in control of the Texas Legislature, Republican lawmakers have steadfastly worked to chip away at abortion access.

Bound by the limits of Roe v. Wade, which stopped them from enacting an outright ban on the procedure, lawmakers got creative. They required abortion clinics to have wide hallways and deputized private citizens to sue providers in an effort to shut down facilities that offer the procedure.

Future lawmaking on the topic will likely not require such ingenuity. A leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, published last week by Politico, suggests the court will reverse the landmark abortion ruling in the coming weeks, allowing states to regulate abortion as they see fit. Texas has a “trigger law” that would make performing an abortion a felony, which would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Their decadeslong goal achieved, Republican lawmakers said there’s still work to be done. Texas GOP leaders and members of the Legislature said it is now time to turn their attention to strengthening the social safety net for women and children and investing in foster care and adoption services.

“It only makes sense,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. “The dog’s caught the car now.”

At least some of the more conservative members of the House said they also want to ensure strict enforcement of the abortion ban and to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking legal abortions in other states.

“I think I can speak for myself and other colleagues that align with my policy beliefs — we’ll continue to do our best to make abortion not just outlawed, but unthinkable,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Texas already has an arsenal of statutes to punish virtually anyone involved in the procurement of an abortion, said University of Texas at Austin law professor Liz Sepper. These include last year’s Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “abets” an abortion after six weeks of gestational age, as well as unenforced pre-Roe abortion statutes criminalizing a person who gets the procedure, which the Legislature never repealed — some dating to the 1850s.

“If Roe is overturned, there’s already a criminal ban, there’s already an aiding and abetting ban, there’s already a ban on mailing medication abortion,” Sepper said. “In terms of law’s ability to change behavior, they’ve almost filled all the gaps — with the exception of criminalizing the pregnant person involved in an abortion.”

Cain said he has a particular interest in going after abortion funds, which seek contributions from donors to help defray the cost of out-of-state trips for pregnant Texans to receive the procedure, citing a state law that prohibits “furnishing the means for procuring an abortion.”

In a March letter to one such group, the Lilith Fund, Cain threatened to file a bill in the coming legislative session that would empower district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes across the state even when local authorities refuse to do so.

Attempts to prohibit individuals from contributing to abortion funds would likely violate the First Amendment’s protections on free speech, said South Texas College of Law Professor Charles “Rocky” Rhodes.

“Helping people go get abortions is going to be one of these difficult questions that’s going to arise in a post-Roe world if a legislature tries to criminalize the ability of a pregnant person to get an abortion someplace where it’s legal,” Rhodes said.

Cain said he is in discussions with fellow Republicans about other abortion-related legislative priorities but that it is premature to discuss them. The next legislative session is scheduled to begin in January.

Texas Democrats, who are vastly outnumbered at the Legislature, characterized the leaked opinion as “bleak” but said they would not stop fighting for access to abortion.

“This will only power our fight to codify the right to abortion at the federal level,” Hannah Roe Beck, the Texas Democratic Party’s co-executive director, said in a news release. “It’s more important than ever that we elect leaders who are ready to put everything on the line to get this through Congress. We cannot tolerate anything less.”

An effort in Congress to do this, however, failed to pass the Senate in February. Another vote scheduled for this week is also expected to fail.

Austin state Rep. Donna Howard spoke of expanding the safety net in terms of pregnant Texans who still will be seeking abortions.

“How do we provide enough health care to those who we are going to be forcing to have pregnancies and carry them to term?” Howard said. “It’s more going to be a focus, I think, on that now, if there’s a way to look at how people can access medication abortion that is a way to get around the law.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that the Legislature would continue to strengthen adoption programs in the state.

"Texas has led the way to protect innocent life in the womb, and we will continue to do so moving forward in the Texas Senate,” Patrick said.

Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond to questions from The Texas Tribune about abortion-related legislative priorities for the coming session in January. House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement that he was confident the Legislature would “rise to the occasion and redouble our commitment to maternal health care in our state.”

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB 8, did not respond. He posted on Twitter on Thursday that Texas would “lead the way in a post-Roe world.”

Republicans have good reason to avoid discussing enforcing Texas’ pre-Roe laws, said Renée Cross of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston: A full abortion ban is broadly unpopular with voters.

Just 15% of respondents in a University of Texas at Austin poll released this week said they support prohibiting all abortions. More troubling for Abbott’s reelection bid this year, Cross said, is the fact that a majority of independents said they believe abortion should be available in most circumstances.

“The Republican Party has been able to rely often on independent voters, but not on this issue,” Cross said. “We saw some Republican voters, particularly suburban women, not vote for President Trump in 2020. A lot of those women will probably think twice about voting for Gov. Abbott.”

Other Republican lawmakers spoke about pitching nonpunitive measures in the upcoming legislative session. Toth said if abortion is outlawed in the state, Republicans in the statehouse will focus on expanding social programs to help pregnant women and their children.

“Now more than ever, the pro-life community and legislators need to step up and make sure we help out women in a crisis pregnancy,” he said. “It means prenatal care, helping them stay in school. It means making sure that we help women once the baby is born, it means adoption services.”

Toth said the expansion of safety net programs would be a “moral response” to the outlawing of abortion in the state. Such an expansion would require an increase in state funding for adoption services, foster care and welfare programs, which Republicans have been hesitant to support in the past. But Toth, a member of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he believes GOP lawmakers would now support the increased funding.

Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life, said he would also support an increase in funding for the Alternative to Abortions program, which the Legislature funded with $100 million this two-year budget cycle. The program pays a far-flung network of nonprofits — many of them ardently anti-abortion — for counseling, classes on prenatal nutrition and newborn care, and the provision of baby items.

But Pojman says lawmakers need to better promote the program so more pregnant people have access to it.

“For a lot of women who find themselves pregnant, they don’t even know that those exist,” he said.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, who is a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said he would support an increase in funding for social safety net programs for pregnant women and young children.

He said he’d push for an increase in Medicaid coverage for low-income new mothers. That coverage was increased last year from 60 days to six months, but experts had recommended extending it by a whole year.

House lawmakers agreed to extend it by a year, but the Senate brought the coverage back down to six months during final negotiations in the 2021 legislative session.

“We have to now work really hard to help these new moms and these new babies,” Capriglione said. “I’m going to be pushing for it.”

But Republicans are also preparing for a protracted fight with Democrats in Congress who will be reenergized to push for access to abortion at the federal level.

“This is not going to go away,” Toth said. “Nothing really changes.”

Rhodes, the South Texas law professor, said the potential overturning of Roe could also weaken federal protections ensuring access to contraceptives. He said states could consider reclassifying emergency contraception such as Plan B, the pill that prevents pregnancy by the delaying the release of an egg from the ovary, as forms of abortion.

“It’s pretty wide open, with how creative our Legislature has been lately, for creating additional restrictions on our reproductive freedoms,” Rhodes said.

Disclosure: Politico, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and its Hobby School of Public Affairs have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/09/texas-republicans-roe-wade-abortion-adoptions/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas GOP mega donor charged after a bogus election fraud scheme led a former cop to threaten a repairman

Conservative activist Steven Hotze on Wednesday was indicted on two felony charges related to his alleged involvement in an air conditioning repairman being held at gunpoint in 2020 during a bizarre search for fraudulent mail ballots that did not exist, according to his attorney, Gary Polland.

Hotze, 71, was indicted by a Harris County grand jury and faces one count of unlawful restraint and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Court filings in the case were not available Wednesday evening. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg declined to comment.

The charges stem from Hotze’s hiring of more than a dozen private investigators to look for voter fraud in Harris County ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

One of the investigators, former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre, was arrested in December 2020 and charged with aggravated assault. Prosecutors said Aguirre used his vehicle to run an air conditioning repairman off the road before dawn on Oct. 19, 2020.

Aguirre then detained the repairman at gunpoint and ordered an associate to search his truck, according to court filings. When a Houston police officer happened upon the scene and stopped to investigate, Aguirre said the truck contained 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots prepared by Democrats.

The truck contained only air conditioning parts and equipment. Hotze’s investigators have not produced any credible evidence to support allegations that Democrats orchestrated a wide-ranging mail ballot scheme in Harris County during that election.

Polland said the charges against Hotze are “outrageous” and his client had no knowledge of the roadside incident until he read media reports of Aguirre’s arrest. He said Aguirre asked Hotze for funds to investigate alleged election fraud, Hotze agreed, and that was the extent of his involvement in Aguirre’s affairs.

“All I know is Hotze didn’t aid or abet this in any way,” Polland said. “The donation of funds was for a righteous activity of rooting out ballot fraud.”

Grand jury subpoenas in Aguirre’s case show that Hotze paid Aguirre $266,400. Most of that sum, $211,400, was paid to Aguirre on the day after the alleged holdup.

Aguirre remains free on bond awaiting trial. One of his conditions of release is that he no longer work for Hotze.

Hotze, however, plans to continue monitoring election activity in Houston. At a “Freedom Gala” fundraiser Hotze hosted on April 2 with Attorney General Ken Paxton, Hotze said donations would be used to investigate voter fraud in Texas.

Also attending the event was Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has promoted the baseless theory that former President Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Polland said Hotze does not plan to alter his plans because of the indictments.

Hotze, a physician, has long advocated on behalf of conservative issues. He was instrumental in the 2015 defeat of Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which he derided as “pro-homosexual.” He opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage spurred by a Supreme Court ruling earlier that year.

In 2020, he unsuccessfully sued Harris County in an attempt to have 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru locations thrown out.

His far-right beliefs have sometimes led to disputes with other Republicans. In June 2020, during protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Hotze left a voicemail with Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff urging the governor “to shoot to kill if any of these son-of-a-bitch people start rioting.” U.S. Senator John Cornyn called the remarks “absolutely disgusting and reprehensible.”

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/20/steve-hotze-houston-indicted-voter-fraud/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas judge's staff indicted in $11 million vax contract awards scandal

Three employees of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have been indicted by a grand jury on charges related to how they helped award a contract for COVID-19 vaccine outreach last year.

The Harris County district clerk lists two felony counts each for chief of staff Alex Triantaphyllis, policy director Wallis Nader and former policy aide Aaron Dunn. The charges are misuse of official information and tampering with a government record.

The charges add weight to a scandal Hidalgo has attempted to dismiss as politically motivated, and they threaten to tarnish her carefully cultivated image as an ethically minded public servant as she seeks reelection this year. Hidalgo is widely seen as a rising star in the Texas Democratic Party and a future statewide candidate.

The three employees were part of a selection committee to choose a vendor for a COVID-19 vaccine outreach campaign Hidalgo wanted. The committee, which also included members of the county health department, unanimously awarded an $11 million contract to Elevate Strategies, a small political consulting firm owned by Felicity Pereyra, who has previously worked on Democratic campaigns.

The committee had rated a cheaper bid from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston highest in a scoring competition. After interviewing the top applicants, the group decided to award the contract to Elevate. Hidalgo's office said the firm's background in political communications was exactly the skill set needed for the vaccine outreach campaign, which was to include digital ad buys and door-to-door canvassing.

Republicans have seized on this as evidence of corruption, alleging without evidence that Hidalgo was funneling money to help the Democratic Party build relationships with voters. Hidalgo accused Republican county commissioners of spreading conspiracy theories, though she agreed to cancel the contract in September because she said it had become too politicized.

Court records filed by the Texas Rangers, who are assisting prosecutors, suggest the inquiry focuses on whether Hidalgo’s office inappropriately involved Pereyra in designing the bid proposal she would later win.

Hidalgo did not respond to a request for comment. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office said it could only confirm charges after delivering arrest warrants to defendants.

Republican County Commissioner Jack Cagle, who began asking questions about the contract last summer, said in a statement he took no pride "in being right about this."

"This is a major black eye for Harris County," Cagle said. "Now it’s time for the courts to sort it out."

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/11/lina-hidalgo-staff-indictments-contract-scandal/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.